PhillyStat has been out of order since July. Have you missed it?
Residents may not have noticed that the city's data-collection program, begun with great fanfare by former Managing Director Camille Barnett, has been temporarily shelved by her successor, Richard Negrin.
But what happens next is worth watching. Revamping the program and making it relevant will serve as a major test for Negrin, the new managing director who started July 1. He's promised to bring private-sector know-how to city government.
"The hope is it will help us run the government more efficiently," said Negrin, who expects to have a retooled PhillyStat up and running early next year.
The stakes are clear. Done right, using data to better drive the city's policy and budget decisions can save money and improve services. But if the program falters again, PhillyStat could continue to languish as a governmental afterthought that provides really boring videos for Channel 64.
"What happens in lots of places, they say, 'Oh, cool hammer, where's my nail?,' " Harvard professor Bob Behn, an expert in public management, said of statistics programs like PhillyStat. "Rather than studying with purpose, they start with the system. I look at it as a strategy with which you might be able to [better manage]."
Barnett, a professional city manager who had worked in Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C., launched PhillyStat in 2008, holding meetings with department heads in the Municipal Services Building. Along with the 3-1-1 nonemergency call line, PhillyStat was touted as a way to better improve the city's customer service.
But the program never really took off. During the two-plus years of PhillyStat, departments came in on an irregular schedule and meetings were often canceled. Top administrators - with the exception of Barnett - were rarely at the meetings. It also was never clear that much PhillyStat data were being used to inform policy or budgetary decisions.
Negrin bluntly said that he didn't consider the old setup to be "performance management" - in other words, a system that sets clear goals and uses statistical analysis to see if those goals are being met.
"I think there wasn't a lot of structure," said Negrin, who comes to city government from private industry and plans to use management strategies he honed as a vice president at the Aramark Corp.
So what needs to change? Experts said that for a program like PhillyStat to work, departments must have clearly defined targets. Once those targets - like response times for fire calls, or the frequency of street cleaning - are set, data should be used to track progress.
"A target is something where you know whether you got there or not," said Behn. "A target has a number and a date."
Another priority should be staying on top of budget numbers, like overtime and spending.
"Cost always has to be an issue," said Harry Hatry, director of the Public Management Program at the Urban Institute, in Washington, D.C.
And experts agreed that PhillyStat needs to set a consistent schedule for department heads - so that they know how often they're reporting, what they're expected to bring in and what kind of follow-up will happen after a session.
In Baltimore, where the lauded CitiStat program helped curb overtime and sick-leave costs, major departments report every 14 days and deliver data on spending, as well as how they're responding to 3-1-1 calls. Matthew Gallagher, who previously directed CitiStat, said that this quickly reveals the weakest links.
"If you're not an effective manager, this becomes a trying experience," said Gallagher, now chief of staff to Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. But, he added, "You can't run multimillion-dollar enterprises without good data and information."
Baltimore also has a team of at least six staffers who crunch the numbers and prepare data for the sessions.
Negrin, who has sent staffers to review statistical programs in other cities over the summer, says that he'll be incorporating many of those ideas into the new, improved PhillyStat, although he won't be adding a lot of staff. Currently, the city has one full-time staffer dedicated to PhillyStat, and Negrin said that he'll hire one more person at most.
Instead, Negrin hopes to have departments set goals and then manage the data within the department. Departments would be expected to track information about operations, budget, human resources and technology, Negrin said.
Asked if he thought that that would increase workload for the city's strained resources, Negrin said that departments should be tracking performance anyway.
Negrin also said that he does not expect department heads to report twice a month, envisioning a quarterly schedule for top managers to present before Negrin, Finance Director Rob Dubow and Chief of Staff Clay Armbrister, which he says will be enough public presenting.
Both Negrin and Dubow said they hoped that over time the city could start using the PhillyStat data to make budget decisions. In theory, better tracking means the city knows how much a program actually costs, as opposed to budgeting the same amount for it each year as a matter of course.